This story requires some introduction, or the point of it will be missed entirely, so here we go: I wrote this short story as an assignment for one of my university courses about Ayn Rand and Sinclair Lewis. My professor gave me permission to submit some creative writing instead of an analytical essay, as she wanted me to incorporate Wulfgard into my assignment somehow. It wasn’t a creative writing course, and this was actually the first time I’ve ever submitted creative writing for a class – but I had a lot more fun writing this than an essay, so I’m glad she allowed me to do it.

The purpose of this short story is to concisely convey the most prominent points of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, drawing from characters and elements in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. My goal was to display how her philosophy could be shown through a historical medieval fantasy story. Conveniently, I was also taking a class on the Era of the European Reformation that semester, which went very in-depth discussing guilds and the guild system. That gave me a lot of my initial ideas of how to write an Ayn Rand style story about objectivism in a medieval setting that doesn’t have the same kind of media and corporations that her works do.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my short story that received an A+ at a university where A+’s don’t officially exist (I just had to brag about that one, sorry!).

 

Wulfgard: Wrought in Gold

(written spring 2014)

The sound of a blacksmith’s hammer rang out through the chill morning fog. In the large meeting room of the town council, the various merchants of the guild frowned at one another. They were by no means a small group, consisting of a wide variety of artisans who all managed to look just alike.

The guild blacksmith, Percival Smith, leaned forward on the large, round table around which they sat. “What about that law?” he asked brusquely, knitting his fingers together before him and drawing his mouth into a fine line as he glanced around at the other merchants.

There were weavers, sculptors, builders, tanners, fletchers, chandlers, leatherworkers – individuals from every local business imaginable. Guildmasters from each craft sat around the table, their young apprentices flanking them and peering curiously over their shoulder.

Percival Smith sat with his ilk, the blacksmiths, of whom there were only three. He didn’t much look like a blacksmith, given his wiry frame. He had thin shoulders and a mousy, brown mustache that he constantly scratched, as if it had fleas. His fairly long, mud-colored hair was swept back over his neck and behind his ears, which poked out on either side of his head. Blacksmithing was his profession, as was clear from his name, even if his musculature told otherwise. His family had been doing it for as long as their history ran, and all he knew to do was continue the family tradition.

But he never much cared for it. Hammering things into tools and weapons didn’t suit his idea of a fine lifestyle, hence the quality of his items. But they were affordable, and he was the only blacksmith in town, so people had to buy them. At least… he used to be the only blacksmith in town.

Yes,” said one of the chandlers, a man as tall and thin as the candles he made, as he leaned forward on the table, “the law. Last week we voted in agreement…”

I say we enact it now,” added Percival, resting his bony elbows on the table and glancing around at everyone in an almost nervous way, his dark eyes wandering over their faces. “Every other town council for leagues has done the same. It only makes sense. Isn’t that what we’re here to do?”

Percival spoke of a simple law: an unnamed writ that would demand that all merchants outside the guild leave town. By way of guilds, it was standard operating procedure. Either a merchant joined the guild and regulated the quality of his items – and his prices – to the guild standards, or he was forced out of town. There was to be no competition, simply a standardized set of items for all.

And given that the guildmasters also ran the political town council, the decision to force out anyone who refused to join the guild was generally a unanimous one.

Here in the wilds of Northrim, such a law went without question in the minds of the guildmasters. They couldn’t afford competition, since there were so few customers to be had in the wilderness. Greendale was a small bastion of Achaean civilization in the middle of unconquered territory. All around their bustling little town, with its fine cobblestone roads, an even finer stone temple, and its high wooden walls, lay almost nothing besides untamed forests.

A dirt road to the east led to Rimegard, the only true city for leagues that held allegiance with the Achaean Empire. Along the way rested a few farms and some far smaller villages, but by and large, Greendale stood on its own.

Thus, the merchants felt they could not afford anyone cutting in on their business. And why should they? They were in control, after all. It was a reasonable request: join the guild, make items as they dictated, sell them as they dictated, and share your contracts – if the guild allowed you to accept them in the first place – and you could work your craft within the safety of Greendale’s walls, instead of facing the wilderness and its barbarian clans.

All in favor,” Percival called, “say aye.”

A single voice ran through the room, composed of various tones, deep or squeaky, largely male, save for a select few widows who had been forced to take over their husband’s profession: “Aye.”

Sparks spat from the hot metal blade as the hammer pounded it flat, ridding it of imperfections in the iron. It came out as a fine axe-head, broad and strong, fit for chopping down even the mightiest trees of Northrim.

Any other man standing in the sweltering heat of the forge and the fumes of the fire would have been stifled by the flames and the choking vapors, but Hugh Radcliff pressed his strong hand upon the billows again, sending the inferno up even higher and basking in the red-hot glow.

Hugh had been a blacksmith for his entire life. His father had been a warrior of the vast Achaean Empire to the south, on a campaign from his home city of Caltha, and he had settled in Rimegard after having a child.

While his father dedicated himself to war, Hugh dedicated himself to blacksmithing. When he was twelve, he made his masterpiece that would’ve allowed him to become a guildmaster – but instead of lowering the quality of his items since then, as all journeymen did after they attained their desired rank in their guild and bought themselves a store, he hadn’t stopped steadily creating masterpieces.

He made arms and armor, horseshoes and tools, farm equipment… anything anyone could ever want from a blacksmith. Consistently, he had been forced out of towns and cities by their merchant guilds, all of which he had refused to join. Two of his past shops had been burned to the ground by angry guildsmen.

Now, he worked in silence, his sharp grey eyes only on the object he was crafting. Hugh was a singular man, standing at an incredible height – particularly for an Achaean – and bearing a body of thick, bulging muscles coated in bronzed skin. His red-gold hair dripped with sweat, as did the thick stubble on his face that only accentuated his sharp, angular features.

Sweat poured down his strong body as he stood shirtless in the heat of the flames, wearing nothing other than his boots and trousers, feeling the smoke against his skin. The only proper protection he wore while working was a pair of thick gloves, and any sparks that struck his bare chest or arms left small burns behind, which didn’t seem to faze him.

Footsteps echoed in the building, and even over the roaring flame, Hugh discerned the sound of a panting messenger. He turned to face a lanky man who stood awkwardly and bow-legged, like someone who had ridden a horse for entirely too long – particularly in the last few hours. In his hand, the man clutched a sealed envelope.

From the Knights Templar, sir,” breathed the messenger, holding out the envelope. With a nod, Hugh took it, glancing at the seal. It was indeed the four-pointed star of Astra Aeterna, the symbol of the Knights Templar.

A few weeks ago, some Northern barbarians had raided a nearby monastery of Astra Aeterna, a peaceful deity whose cult was based around the god Ormazd, from the Southron land called Parsanshar. The Northmen stole various Imperial artifacts, manuscripts, and even took a few hostages for ransom, burning the monastery itself to the ground. Hugh figured in an instant that this letter was a result of the incident.

The moment the envelope left his hand, the messenger turned and ran off, disappearing out the door. Hugh paid him no heed, opening the letter and unfolding the bit of parchment inside. Most commoners were entirely illiterate, as the messenger himself almost certainly had been, but Hugh’s father had given him one book as a child. Using this single tome, Hugh had arduously taught himself to read at least one language: Common Imperial, a tongue used by most everyone up and down Northrim, the Achaean Empire, and even many regions of the Southron lands.

Hugh Radcliff,” it read in very terse and simple prose written by a precise hand, “the Knights Templar of Astra Aeterna hereby requests a commission of twenty suits of armor and sets of weapons in exchange for a sum of eight thousand Imperial crowns.” The crowns in question were the golden coins of the Empire, far more valuable than the silver denarii or copper asses. Eight thousand crowns was enough to set one man for life.

The immensely rich Knights Templar were one of the few single orders that could promise such a payment. They were dedicated to the protection and moderation of the Achaean temples to gods such as Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, and the other Olympians, among whom the Templars were a neutral party.

We will supply the materials required. This equipment will be used to outfit a small force of Templars who will strike back at the pillaging Northmen and recover the hostages and valuables stolen from the Astral monastery. Signed, Knight-Captain Charles Decimus.”

Hugh took one glance over the letter before he walked toward the entrance to his shop and stood in the doorway, watching the messenger as he watered his horse. The young man looked up at him like a startled animal as he approached.

Tell them I’ll do it,” he said, and the messenger nodded emphatically, returning to his steed while Hugh returned to his shop.

The metal arrived the next day. A large cart full of supplies arrived outside Hugh’s shop, and the two knights who brought it personally carried every crate inside, placing the boxes where Hugh specified. Percival Smith emerged from his own shop just down the street to stare at the mysterious crates being hauled about, and he waited quietly until everything was unloaded from the cart and the men left. Then, he marched straight to the entrance of Hugh’s store. Without knocking, he entered.

There, he found Hugh kneeling beside an open case of shimmering metal. But it was no ordinary metal – it shone bright gold in the light of the forge, a brilliant hue. The color of it was far too brilliant to belong to any metal that would ever be used for armor.

Percival knew immediately what he was seeing. Every crate contained two of the rarest metals known to man: deepsilver and deepgold, they were called. The dvergar, the dwarves, mined such materials from deep within the heart of the earth, hence their names. Deepsilver was incredibly lightweight yet durable, though it did not bear any anti-monster qualities of true silver. Deepgold was far heavier, but it was possibly the strongest metal in existence. Very rarely did it fall upon Men to forge either raw metal into armor, for the Templar or anyone else, instead of the dwarves who mined it.

To work with such materials was one of the highest pleasures any blacksmith could ever know… And it also meant that blacksmith was being paid exorbitant amounts of money.

At the sight, Percival tried his best not to show any hint of outrage. Hugh looked up at him and stood, appearing utterly calm in spite of the rival blacksmith standing in his shop and snooping in his business.

Percival,” Hugh said as a greeting.

Radcliff,” answered Percival in a low tone, his lip twitching as if urging him to reveal his sneer and be done with it. Instead, he forced a cordial tone and went on, “You seem to be doing well for yourself.”

Again Hugh nodded. “Indeed.”

Sniffing slightly and scratching his mustache, Percival prompted, “These metals – that’s deepgold, yes? How’d you get it? Why are you working with it?”

I have a contract.”

With who?”

Calmly, Hugh replied, “It’s not your business.”

Percival drew himself up slightly. “No need to get offended, Radcliff.”

Hugh shrugged. “I’m not offended.”

Then why don’t you answer the question?”

Why should I?”

Because I asked.”

You don’t command me.”

It’s the polite thing to do.”

I’m not polite.”

I can see that,” snapped Percival.

Good,” answered Hugh, though he still didn’t sound angry in the least. “Now leave me to my work.”

Without another word, Percival turned on his heel and marched out. Glancing around, he saw the cart, which had previously unloaded the metal to Hugh’s shop, stopped at the local tavern. He strode over to it, slipped into the building and found a pair of strangers sitting at the bar.

After a few drinks and some friendly questions, the men’s tongues loosened up enough for Percival to learn the nature of their mission. They were two of the knights in the service of the Knights Templar, and they were here to provide Hugh Radcliff – “the local blacksmith,” as they called him, much to Percival’s deep frustration – with the materials required to forge twenty suits of armor and twenty sets of weapons for themselves and the rest of their fellows.

Percival’s response was something even he didn’t really expect. The lies came perhaps too naturally, but it brought him pride rather than shame.

I suppose no one told you fellows about the lackluster quality in Hugh’s work,” he said. The two Templars exchanged glances, but Percival continued. “Oh, I’m sure you heard he’s quite the blacksmith. Truth is, the man’s the son of a soldier. He doesn’t even know the profession, like my family does. I’ve been doing it for generations. Hugh even has the audacity to spurn the town council, no less. He’s not a guildmaster, you see. He’s freelance.”

Freelance?” said one of the knights.

Mhm,” answered Percival, nodding for emphasis. “He disrupts the local economy. Perhaps you should tell your masters that. They might not want to associate themselves with such a person, particularly given his crafting is inferior quality to my own. I can assure you that he has no family line to back such a profession.”

The moment Percival finished with the two knights, he swept out the door like a typhoon, charging straight up to the guildhouse. The town council was not in session, but he found several of its members and managed to haul an impromptu meeting together. The mention of how Hugh Radcliff had acquired a job from the Knights Templar aided him greatly in stirring up concern.

Once the council was together, the air filled with demands and accusations. A huge sum of money was being thrown at this one man, and he wasn’t even associated with the guild. Why weren’t they receiving any of this influx of coin? Why hadn’t the leatherworkers been told to make sheaths and belts? Saddles? Barding? Why wasn’t the clothier making surcoats and tabards?

Percival suddenly raised his voice to say, “And why do we tolerate Hugh Radcliff, anyway?”

Why do you tolerate him, you mean,” chuckled a fletcher from across the table.

I mean why do we tolerate him,” Percival answered curtly, scratching his mustache. “He refuses to join this guild, yet he’s still in operation. Why? He sells his wares for killer prices. There’s no way the common folk could afford such things – and yet the knights always buy from him. It’s taking away from other peoples’ business, making competition we shouldn’t have to put up with. For the gods’ sakes, he’s even supplying the Knights Templar now!”

Yes,” said a tanner, “I heard about that. Word of it is spreading like wildfire. Shouldn’t we get rid of him somehow? Stop him?”

He’s making this entire town council look like a bunch of louts,” agreed Percival. “If he isn’t going to leave on his own, then we’ll have to force him out. There’s no other way. If we don’t, then we’ll have all sorts of chandlers,” he glanced at their ilk, “fletchers, tanners, clothiers – this town will be overrun with gods-damned freelancers! Our economy will fall apart!”

That night, Hugh awoke to a loud crash downstairs. His home was a floor above his shop, as most merchants arranged their buildings. It didn’t take him long to figure out what was happening, and he threw off his meager covers, ran to the stairs, and quickly descended them.

But the vandals were already gone. Hugh found his shop in ruins. Weapons and armor that he had already prepared had been thrown into his forge, the flames heated to melt the metal together into a huge, unsightly pile of slag. Racks had been torn down and destroyed, his tools scattered across the floor, and his basin of water had been spilled all across them.

Hugh took stock of the situation from the stairs, quietly drumming the fingers of one hand on the railing. He then stepped down into his shop and started to gather up his equipment and pull the ruined tools and armor from the forge.

Somewhat to his surprise, things weren’t too terribly disrupted. Perhaps they were still simply trying to send him a warning before they took more desperate measures. It wasn’t unheard of for unwelcome merchants to be murdered by the guilds of a town. Their shop would be burned to the ground, often taking them with it.

Judging from the way the crates in the vicinity had been smashed open, their contents spilled all over the floor, Hugh guessed the raiders had been seeking the valuables provided to him by the Templar. Unfortunately for them, Hugh had already stowed the crates upstairs to begin his work in the morning.

Once he had freed most of the slag from his forge and was able to get a flame going in it again, he returned upstairs and brought down the first box of materials.

In the dead of night, Percival returned to his shop, feeling satisfied with what he and his fellow guildsmen had done. Surely that was enough to force Hugh from the town. Now his position in town was secure. He could relax again and work at his own pace, knowing the other blacksmiths were making products of the same type and quality as he did. There was no competition.

And then he heard the sound of a hammer ringing through the night.

The following day, the gates of Greendale were opened wide to allow passage for eighteen impressive riders: they were all Knights Templar, clad in their white and red surcoats bearing the golden star of Astra. Their horses had already been outfitted in fine barding of the same color, making them appear just as armored as their riders would when Hugh finished forging their equipment. The horses’ face-plates shimmered in the bright sunlight, and the long, chainmail coats they wore beneath the heavy cloth – embroidered with symbols of Astra – draped over their large, strong bodies.

Some of the Templars offered nods or words of greeting to the peasants who gathered in the streets to watch in awe as the rich, noble warriors rode toward the inn. Others ignored the commoners entirely, halting their horses at the stables and offering the simplest of words to the stable hands who came to take them. Then the Templars marched into the inn, a few speaking amongst themselves about the upcoming battle.

It was going to be a small battle, for sure: the Templar only had twenty men in total, after all. In fact, it was little more than a sort of return raid in retaliation for attacking the monastery. But when it came to well-trained and well-equipped knights, twenty men were as good as a hundred or more peasant militiamen.

Still, the numbers worried many inhabitants of Greendale, who whispered about the battle. One Templar broke away from his fellows, waving off four loyal individuals – including a female knight, who drew the eyes of many common folk – who tried to follow him.

Knight-Captain Stevan Randal did not require the presence of his fellows to speak with the blacksmith they had hired. He may have been a Captain, but he was not the only commander present. Another Captain, Charles Decimus, took seniority, as Stevan himself was quite young for his rank. After all, he attained his position due to exceptional shows of bravery, skill, intelligence, and dedication, not due to age and long experience. With Decimus around, he wasn’t in charge – but his four best friends, whom he generally commanded, still recognized him as their leader instead.

Stevan tried not to care that he wasn’t in command, a position he was used to holding. At least they had taken his advice when it came to who would forge their new suits of armor and weapons.

As he walked toward Hugh’s shop, Stevan listened to the chattering of the common folk bustling in the streets. The Captain stood out in a crowd: he was incredibly tall, with broad shoulders, and a lean body that was, essentially, perfect. He bulged with muscle, his surcoat tight on his strong figure. His golden-brown hair shone in the sunlight, and his handsome, chiseled features belonged on a sculpture of Apollo himself: high and prominent cheekbones, dark and low-set eyebrows, slim eyes, and a lean, sharp nose. As he walked, his sky blue eyes took in the sight of the simple little town.

Stevan had seen many towns such as this one. Ruled by merchant guilds, they became a place where the coin of newcomers was eagerly invited, but any new ideas were not. Change was unwelcome, but even more unwelcome was anyone willing to move in and then dispute that the town council did not have full charge of their lives.

Although not noble by birth, Stevan recalled the nobles of his home city of Stonebridge – before he left to join the Order of the Knights Templar – discussing how degrading towns such as this were. Some nobles were willing to tighten their grip on the town council, suffer through riots, and then hope their land could recover afterwards, in order to free themselves from the idea that the peasants were intelligent enough to govern their own affairs. Other nobles, however, were too afraid that the towns would die out forever if they put their foot down and told the commoners they were in charge. Still others even believed that letting the peasants have their committee and rule themselves was actually helpful.

Either way, none of it was Stevan’s worry. He was a Templar and a warrior, not a duke or a king fretting over politics. His charge was simple: carry out his mission to free the hostages from the barbarians, and then reclaim what they had so violently stolen from the monastery.

However, he couldn’t help but overhear many of the conversations he passed. Men and women alike spoke of Hugh and the newly arrived Templars… and their words were not complimentary. They told of how Hugh Radcliff was a swindler and a cheat, as well as a rebel who should be outlawed for not joining the merchant guild and participating on the town council. He was not performing his civic duty, and his refusal to check himself with the requirements of society put everyone in danger.

He also heard the name ‘Percival Smith.’

Upon arriving at Hugh’s shop, Stevan strode inside and saw Hugh turn to regard him. Stevan gave Hugh a brief salute by slamming his fist into his chest. Hugh merely nodded in response to the gesture of respect.

Captain Stevan Randal,” said the Templar, offering a friendly smile.

Hugh Radcliff,” said Hugh, not smiling, but his tone was not unfriendly. “You’re the one who hired me.”

I am. You figured that out pretty fast.”

It’s very obvious. Decimus may have written the letter, but you were the one who cared enough to speak with me personally.”

Stevan nodded. “So, how’s it coming?”

Hugh turned and picked up an object from behind him, letting his work speak for itself. He offered Stevan a great helm, crafted from a combination of deepgold and deepsilver, bearing the distinctive star of Astra over the wearer’s face. Stevan took it and turned it over in his hands, admiring the craftsmanship.

They’re talking about you, you know,” said Stevan, looking at Hugh again. “That other blacksmith is spreading slander.”

Hugh merely shrugged. “Let him.”

Stevan couldn’t help but give a brief laugh, though Hugh could tell he was concerned. “You don’t care at all, huh? He’s trying to drag your name through the dirt. Says you’re ruining the economy. It’s a wonder they haven’t burned your shop to the ground already.”

They tried. It didn’t stop me.”

I can see that,” replied the Templar, handing Hugh the helm again. “You should show this to them, Hugh. It’d make them change their minds. You could display it in a shop window while you finish the rest of the order. It’d at least make them stop talking behind your back.”

I don’t care what they’re saying,” replied Hugh, laying the helm aside again for now. “I won’t display this in a window. It has no place there. It belongs on a knight in battle, not a stand in a shop.”

Won’t argue with that,” replied Stevan. “I just hope all this mud-slinging doesn’t start trouble. I can’t stand dishonesty.” The Templar saluted him again. “I need to get back to my men.”

Hugh nodded again and returned to his work. “Close the door on your way out,” he said, which Stevan did. Hugh had no desire to hear the hubbub of the streets outside – all he wanted to hear was the roaring flames of his forge and the sound of his hammer pounding imperfections from the metal.

Hugh did not sleep. He worked all through the night, forging fine suits of armor and sets of blades. When at last the sun rose, however, a messenger burst through the door, sputtering apologies for the interruption as he saw Hugh busy pounding on a mighty blade of deepsilver.

The messenger left him with a simple letter: a letter from the Knights Templar saying that they retracted their order and that men would be by later to take the materials they had supplied, in order to turn them over to Percival Smith instead. It was signed by Captain Charles Decimus.

Those men arrived moments later to carry out their orders, hauling off the crates of metal, but they did not take them all. While the servants busied themselves taking back the raw materials the Templars had provided, the messenger returned with another letter: this one was from Stevan.

Five knights. Five suits of armor, five sets of weapons – that was all Hugh had now been ordered to make. Stevan and his four knights had each signed the letter, which served as a contract that they ordered his work, not Percival Smith’s. Hugh read over the names: Captain Stevan Randal, Sir William Basilius, Sir Celso Vega, Lady Zoria Silver, and Sir Brandon Buchanan. Each of them had also provided the measurements for their armor.

As the men hustled out with the crates of the metal Hugh had always dreamed of working with, he turned to look at the remaining containers. There was just enough to fulfill his contract. Clearly, Stevan had enough pull for that, at least.

Now that his shop had fallen back into silence, Hugh set to work yet again. One knight’s equipment was already completed and laid aside, so there were four remaining. To his surprise, one was female, so that would require slightly different workmanship than usual. It would be an interesting challenge.

For several long hours, Hugh kept working away, shaping the metal carefully and tenderly, making sure there wasn’t a single imperfection in either design or functionality. The Knights Templar had a reputation to uphold when it came to the appearance and quality of their armor, and it was a reputation Hugh planned to solidify.

Just as he put the finishing touches on a fourth set of armor, a face that was becoming far too familiar for his liking suddenly walked into the building as if he owned it. Percival turned up his lips in what may have been an attempt at a smile, but it came out as much more of a sneer. He ran his fingers over the same helm that Hugh had shown to Stevan earlier. When he met Hugh’s eyes, he almost wondered if the other blacksmith was about to murder him. But it was only his eyes – his face betrayed no emotion.

Clearing his throat, Percival then kept his hands to himself. “You know, Radcliff,” he began in a tone that indicated he was trying to sound sympathetic to Hugh’s plight, “this isn’t much of a job.”

Percival’s eyes pointedly wandered over the armor and weapons he had forged for Stevan and his knights.

Hugh didn’t react. “You’re interrupting my work,” was his only response.

Percival pursed his lips slightly for a moment before scratching his mustache. “Apologies,” he said in a poor attempt to sound apologetic. “What I mean to say, Radcliff, is that I could give you back all this work. I know how much you’ve always wanted to craft with such metals – after all, who wouldn’t? They’re incredibly valuable. It’s every blacksmith’s dream to forge…”

Get to the point.”

No need to interrupt. I came to offer you something. I’d like you to be my apprentice. We could work together. You’d learn so much more about this trade! I know you never actually learned properly, did you? You were self-taught, or so I’ve heard? That’s no way to forge. You need a proper master to show you how it’s done. Then you make your masterpiece, purchase your store, and take up your place in the guild. You regulate your quality and prices so that everyone has an equal chance to use your products. That’s how it’s done, and that’s the only way it can be done. It’s just how society works.”

Hugh almost wanted to chuckle at all the absurdity, yet the very idea was so degradingly offensive that he couldn’t. He said evenly, “You’re not very subtle, Percival.”

Percival gave a patronizing smile. “I’m not trying to offend you, Radcliff. I’m just trying to make an offer.”

I would sooner die than make you think you can teach me something,” said Hugh, though to Percival’s surprise, he sounded as even-tempered as ever. “Now get out of my sight.”

Your loss,” retorted Percival. As much as Hugh’s blunt refusal angered him, the fact that Hugh himself didn’t seem angry at all infuriated him far more. Turning on his heel as he always did when trying to appear authoritative, Percival scampered back out the door, which he left wide open behind him.

For the next few days, Hugh perfected every piece of equipment that he forged for those five knights. They arrived one morning, Stevan making light mention of how the others were still waiting for Percival to finish the rest of their armor. The five knights outfitted themselves in the panoplies, testing the strength and weight of the weapons. Every slight issue, Hugh fixed before Percival finally completed his work.

Then, at long last, the day arrived. All twenty knights were outfitted and equipped. Hugh stood in the doorway of his shop and watched as the horses marched out, the armored riders resting proudly on their steeds. Without even trying, he could pick out his five knights amidst the others. He saw the tallest one, his broad shoulders and arrow-straight posture marking him as Stevan, turn to him and nod his helmed head. Hugh nodded back.

It was several more days before Hugh heard about the outcome of the skirmish.

The Knights Templar had fought against incredible odds. They met the barbarians head-on and found that the Northmen were much stronger than originally anticipated. However, the knights were a mighty match for – so rumors claimed – even a hundred or more Northerners. For a day, they valiantly battled, decimating the barbarian forces.

But even the greatest of warriors could be overwhelmed. The Northmen began to massacre the Templars about midway into the battle. When the blood and smoke cleared, there were only five men left standing. The Templars won victory at a very high price.

Upon hearing that only five Templars survived, Hugh asked no more questions. He had just received a new order from a knight to the south, in the city of Illikon, and another from some knights of Rimegard. The battle of the Templars was concluded, and his work with them was finished for now. He had other orders to fulfill, other jobs to do well.

As he felt the hot breath of the forge against his skin, the sweat rolling down his strong arms and dripping from his sharp nose, Hugh knew exactly which five knights had survived… and he knew why.